SMASHback #2: ASSvision

September 20th, 2016

Some more thoughts on the London Graphic Novel Network‘s second S.M.A.S.H. event, as previously discussed here.

You can watch the panel I contributed to below:

My speech at the start of this panel now exists like the death of Orion in/around Final Crisis, in a mini-kaleidoscope of different versions and recordings scattered across the internet – suits me, given the daft flourish about the Tower of Babel I threw in at the end of it!

The other panellists brought a range of expertise, and while there weren’t any heated arguments, I think our personalities and perspectives clashed in a way that was generally illustrative – Hannah was comfortable enough in her own skin to be flip and funny about taste, Katriona‘s contributions were considered and precise, and Mark‘s focus on technical skill neatly offset my own pseudo-academic tendencies.

As for the broader event, if you’d asked me I would have said that the crowd skewed young and “progressive” (not a term I’m over-fond of myself – I like specificity, a sense of what is being advanced – but having just used it like this I can see the appeal of its vagueness) but there was some pushback when Kelly Kanayama/Maid of Nails discussed the use of racist tropes in the first Warren Ellis/Bryan Hitch Authority story during the panel on MEANING.

Reconstructing intent was a running theme of all three panels (the other two were ART and DIVERSITY, remember), and in this instance it took the form of the Good Man defence: “Given what we know about Warren Ellis’ politics, I think we’re being ridiculous here!” 

A milder version of this was invoked during the London Graphic Novel Network’s subsequent discussion of the same story.  It’s… I was going to try to be kind, but fuck it, it’s a totally inadequate response. It’d be comforting to think that nice, well intentioned people can’t make dodgy art, but it really doesn’t work like that, and The Authority’s no exception – we’ve got to deal with this comic and all of its constituent panels as they actually exist in the world.

I’d be up for reading the Kaizen Gamorra story in a way that makes the deployment of this Fu Manchu stereotype pointed and interesting. I’ve yet to encounter one that extended to more than a plea for critical immunity.

None of this means that we are excluding creators from the conversation, or simply getting them “telt”, just that we aren’t bound to bow to them or to accept their intention as a replacement for what they’ve actually done for it.

Asking creative people what they were trying to do with a story, or a panel layout, or a colouring choice provides a vector of insight that you might not be able to access otherwise.  We can ask “what were you thinking”, in ALL CAPS or otherwise . Writers and artists can’t dictate their own achievements but they can show you a new way of understanding the page; readers can provide a similar vision to those on the other side of the relationship, though it requires a touch of sly Star Trek style magic, a reversal of polarities.

What this leaves us with is a position of shared responsibility: we’re all het for our own contributions, and we should all do better.  After all, we’re all we’ve got.

For me this means trying to develop my understanding of my reactions into something worth arguing for/against.  This is where the question of taste comes in – this was where my pitch in the ART panel started, and the ensuing panel debate came back to it over and over again.

Taste is in us but it’s not innate, and it’s certainly never innocent.  The temptation to think otherwise is hard wired and should be resisted.  “This band’s great”/”This band’s crap” is a non-conversation, but while I’m sceptical that we can ever truly know our own reactions, we can only discuss them once we’ve done the work involved in trying to understand them.

I’m a writer and I fail at this all day long.

A final note, to tie all of this together into something that will hopefully feel worthy of your time.  Artist and architect extraordinaire Alison Sampson challenged my panel to stop using moral terms like good and bad to describe comics art, and to find words that expressed what we were actually trying to say instead.  In the aftermath, amidst much verbal floundering,  Stafford’s top Darth Vader impersonator Kieron Gillen suggested that the best multi-purpose description would be EFFECTIVE / INEFFECTIVE and I found myself agreeing with his typically generous contribution.

Now, I’m not so sure.  If we limit our reading to what’s effective, we might too easily find ourselves reading only in ways that confirm our expectations, merely working out whether the work in question tics the boxes required to appeal to a certain set of standards or tastes.

Considering not just whether comic book art functions but how it functions, and what parts of it exceed or bewilder those functions, can be painful.  It can mean having to confront the fact that an action story you enjoyed used racist stereotypes as shorthand, but that’s essential because it’s also part of figuring out what engaging with the work in question actually means.  If the work uses racist stereotypes it’s worth considering not just whether those are deployed effectively (be that effect satirical or otherwise) but what impact they might have on those being stereotyped – reading beyond function can, in situations like this, lead to a genuine moral judgement.

It can also lead to a richer aesthetic experience, one in which estimating whether you think a strip works is only the start – what comes next is the difficult/fun part, really engaging with the comic and its creators, reacting to their movements as they happen, never being able to reconstruct the intent behind them,  thrilling in or reviling the unnecessary quirks or excesses that are thrown to the floor, and dancing not just because you think you know all the steps but because you actually want to take part.

Art is just us, but like I said, we’re all we’ve got. Better learn to make the most of it.

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